The Divine Feminine
The Virgin Mary
Search of the Real Mary
by Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.
century and culture has interpreted Mary in different ways. You could almost
drown in the various ways that the Christian tradition has honored Mary!
Consider the paintings, sculptures, icons, music, liturgies, feasts, spiritual
writings, theologies, official doctrines. George Tavard wrote a book recently,
and his title gets it exactly right: The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary.
It seems that the image of Mary has
allowed the Christian imagination to think very creatively and very differently
about understanding Mary. But now it's our turn, we the generation alive today.
How should we consider Mary (or Miriam, as she would be known in Hebrew) in the
Recognizing Mary of the Gospels
know very little about Miriam of Nazareth as an actual historical person. In
this she is in solidarity with the multitudes of women through the centuries,
especially poor women and poor men, whose lives are considered not worth
recording. We must also be respectful of her historical difference from us in
time and place. She is a first-century Jewish woman; she is not a 21st-century
American. And that difference must be respected.
The four Gospels portray her in
very different ways, reflecting their very different theologies. At first
glance, Mark comes across as having a negative view of Jesus' mother. She
arrives with other members of the family as Jesus is preaching and they call to
him. When the crowd tells Jesus his mother is asking for him, he replies,
"Who is my mother and brother and sister? Those who do the will of my
father are mother and brother and sister to me" (see Mark 3:31-35). And
Mary remains outside. Mark does not seem to have a positive view, at that point,
of Mary as a disciple.
Matthew's view of Mary is rather
neutral by comparison. He places her in the genealogy of the Messiah, in line
with four other women who act outside the patriarchal marriage structure,
thereby becoming unexpectedly God's partners in a promise-and-fulfillment
schema. In Matthew's Gospel, though, Mary doesn't speak, and all the focus on
the birth story is around Joseph.
Luke describes Mary as a woman of
faith, overshadowed by the Spirit at Jesus' conception and at the beginning of
the Church at Pentecost. She is the first to respond to the glad tidings to hear
the word of God and keep it. This is a pictorial example of Luke's theology of
discipleship. It's a very positive view of Mary from which we have mostly gotten
Finally, John has a highly stylized
portrayal of the mother of Jesus, and that's all he ever calls her. He never
names her. She is pierced twice in John's Gospel, at the beginning and at the
end, at Cana and at the cross. And again she is there embodying responsive
discipleship to the word made flesh.
As with the Gospel portraits of
Jesus, these diverse interpretations cannot always be harmonized. But each is
instructive in its own way.
To glimpse the actual woman behind
these texts is difficult. Now we get help from new studies of the political,
economic, social and cultural fabric of first-century Palestine. New studies are
enabling us to fill in her life in broad strokes.
Much of this knowledge of the
circumstances in which she lived has resulted from the contemporary quest for
the historical Jesus. But it serves us as well for a quest for the historical
Mary. So let's go questing for Miriam of Nazareth—as a Jewish village woman of
Mary as Jewish
a member of the people of Israel, Mary inherited the Jewish faith in one living
God, stemming from Abraham and Sarah onwards. She prays to a God who hears the
cry of the poor, frees the enslaved Hebrews and brings them into their covenant
relationship. Given Jesus' clear knowledge and practice of the Jewish faith in
his adult life, as reflected in the Gospels, it is reasonable to assume that
Mary, with her husband, Joseph, practiced this Jewish religion in their home,
following Torah, observing Sabbath and the festivals, reciting prayers, lighting
candles and going to synagogue, according to the custom in Galilee.
Later at the end of Jesus' life,
Luke depicts Mary in her older years as a member of the early Jerusalem
community, praying with 100 other women and men in the upper room before the
coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. What we see from this—and most scholars
think that that's a historical glimpse—is that Mary participated in the early
Christian community in Jerusalem. Now in the light of the death and resurrection
of Jesus, this gathering of disciples believed that the Messiah had come. But in
no way did they think that this was a cause to leave their religion; they kept
going to the Temple, and so forth.
For many years, they preached the
good news to their fellow Jews trying to get them to understand the promise of
God has been fulfilled, before finally being persuaded by Paul and others that
the gospel was meant for gentiles too. To use a term coined in scholarship, Mary
was a Jewish Christian—the earliest kind of Christian there was. This was
before Christianity split off from the synagogue. She was never a Roman
Christian, never a gentile at all. So it does no honor to her memory to bleach
her of her Jewishness. We've done this ethnically by turning her swarthy Jewish
complexion into fair skin and blonde hair and blue eyes. But we've also done
this religiously by turning her deeply rooted Jewish piety into that of a
latter-day Catholic. She wasn't.
Mary, a Peasant Woman
lived in a Mediterranean rural village, Nazareth, whose population consisted
largely of peasants working the land and craftsmen who served their basic needs.
Married to the local carpenter, she took care of the household. Now how many
children were in that household? Well, her firstborn son, Jesus, obviously lived
there, but we also read in Mark's Gospel that the mother and the brothers and
the sisters lived together in Nazareth. And these brothers are named in Chapter
Six: James, Joses, Judas and Simon. His sisters Mark leaves unnamed, as
typically happened with groups of women in the New Testament.
The apocryphal gospels explain that
these are Joseph's children by previous marriage. But however many were in the
household, we would know that in her setting, her days would ordinarily be taken
up with the hard, unrecompensed work of women of all ages: to feed and clothe
and nurture her growing household. Like other village women of her day, she was
probably unlettered, illiterate.
The economic status of this family
is a matter of some dispute. Scholars like John Meier place them in a
blue-collar working-class arrangement, while others such as John Dominic Crossan
assign them to the peasant class, desperately struggling under the triple
taxation of Temple, Herod and Rome.
Either way the times were tough.
This village was part of an occupied state under the heel of imperial Rome.
Revolution was in the air. The atmosphere was tense. Violence and poverty
prevailed. We owe a debt to Third-World women theologians who have noticed the
similarities between Mary's life and the lives of so many poor women, even
today. Notice how the journey to Bethlehem in order to be counted for a census
accords with the displacement of so many poor people today separated from their
ancestral homes because of debt and taxation.
Notice how the flight into Egypt
parallels the flight of refugees in our day—women and men running with their
children to escape being killed by unjust military force. Notice how Mary's
experience of losing her son to death by unjust state execution compares with so
many women who have had their children and grandchildren disappear or be
murdered by dictatorial regimes. Mary is a sister, a compañera, to the
suffering lives of marginalized women in oppressive situations. It does Mary no
honor to rip her out of her conflictual, dangerous historical circumstances and
transform her into an icon of a peaceful middle-class life dressed in a royal
Woman of Faith
walked by faith, not by sight. As one theologian once said, "She did not
have the dogma of the Immaculate Conception framed and hanging on her kitchen
wall." Scripture tells us she asked questions. She pondered things in her
heart. And she went on faithfully believing even when grief stabbed her to the
She had a relationship with God
that was profound. Now in those days, people's hope for the coming of the
Messiah included the hope that he would liberate the suffering poor from
oppressive rule. Luke's infancy narrative gives a particular twist to our memory
of Mary's faith by placing her in a key position of partnership with God to
bring about this historic occurrence. The Annunciation scene, as biblically
analyzed today, depicts her being called to the vocation of being God's partner
in the work of redemption on the model of the call to Moses at the burning bush.
It's a prophetic call, a call of
vocation to be a partner with God in this great work. Mary gives her free
assent, thus launching her life on an adventure whose outcome she does not know.
She walks by faith, not by sight. Indeed her very pregnancy takes place through
the power of the Spirit.
Mary's virginity has been used to
disparage women who are sexually active, as if they aren't as perfect as Mary
the virgin. But again this event actually sounds a powerful theme for women.
Sojourner Truth, the 19th-century freed slave, was speaking once in a hall where
a group of black-clad clerics were arguing that she should not even have the
right to be on the stage. She noticed their mumbling and said to them,
"Where your Christ come from, honey? Where your Christ come from? He come
from God and a woman. Man had nothin' to do with it."
Business as usual, including
patriarchal marriages, is superseded. And God stands with the young woman
pregnant outside of wedlock, in danger of her own life. God stands with her to
begin fulfilling the divine promise. Now Mary's faith-filled partnership with
God in the work of liberation is sung out in Luke's Gospel in her magnificent
prayer, the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55). It's the longest set of words placed
on the lips of any woman in the New Testament.
Oddly enough, it is a prayer
omitted from most traditional Mariology. Here's the scene: Mary is newly
pregnant; Elizabeth her cousin, an older woman, is six months pregnant;
Zechariah, Elizabeth's husband, has been struck dumb for his lack of faith; and
so there's no male voice to inject itself into this scene. The house is quiet of
men. Mary arrives. Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, embraces her and sings
out, "Blessed art thou among women." And also filled with the Spirit,
Mary breaks into a new prophetic language of faith. She sings a song in the
pattern of Miriam, Deborah, Huldah and Hannah, other great hymn-singers in the
Old Testament, and she launches into divine praise. Her spirit greatly rejoices
in God her savior.
Mary of the Magnificat
Though Mary is poor and lowly, and
a culturally insignificant woman, the powerful living holy God is doing great
things to her. And God does this not only to her but to all the poor: bringing
down the mighty from their thrones; exalting the lowly; filling the hungry with
good things and sending the unrepentant rich away empty. And all of this is
happening in fulfillment of the ancient promise—and in her very being. For she
embodies the nobodies of this world, on whom God is lavishing rescue.
In this song she sings of the
future too, when finally, peaceful justice will take root in the land among all
people. This is a great prayer; it is a revolutionary song of salvation. As
writer Bill Cleary once commented, "It reveals that Mary was not only full
of grace but full of political opinions."
Miriam's song has political
implications—socially radical ones at that. With a mother like this, it's no
wonder that Jesus' first words in Luke proclaim that he has come to free the
captives and bring good news to the poor. The apple doesn't fall far from the
So Mary lived in solidarity with
the project of the coming Reign of God, whose intent was to heal, redeem and
liberate. It does no honor to reduce her faith to a privatized piety. Worse yet,
which sometimes happens in traditional Mariology, is to reduce her faith to a
doting mother-son relationship. She hears the word of God and keeps it. What I'm
suggesting is that before Jesus was born she had her own relationship to God
that wasn't focused on Jesus. Even after his death and resurrection, when she is
now part of the community proclaiming him as the Messiah, her pattern of faith
is still that of Jewish hope: God's Messiah who now has come will come again
soon and bring this justice to the land as a whole.
She hears the word of God and keeps
it. And in this too she is, as Paul VI called her in Marialis Cultus, our
sister in faith. We can begin to see the potential in other Gospel scenes. As we
remember her and keep foremost the idea that she is a Jewish peasant woman of
faith, then we can interpret the other scenes in the Gospels where Mary shows up
and where we are presented with the dangerous memory of this very
inconsequential woman in her own culture and historical context. With a heart
full of love for God and for her neighbor, Mary of Nazareth gives us this
tremendous example of walking by faith through a difficult life.
Our partner in hope
We began by asking, what would be a
theologically sound, spiritually empowering and ethically challenging view of
Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, for the 21st century? My answer has been to
suggest that we remember Mary as a friend of God and prophet in the communion of
saints. Let her dangerous memory inspire and encourage our own witness.
We ought to relate to Miriam of
Nazareth as a partner in hope, in the company of all the holy women and men who
have gone before us. This can help us reclaim the power of her memory for the
flourishing of women, for the poor and all suffering people. It can help us to
draw on the energy of her example for a deeper relationship with the living God
and stronger care for the world.
When the Christian community does
Marian theology this way, our eyes are opened to sacred visions for a different
future. We become empowered to be voices of hope in this difficult world. Like
Mary, we will be rejoicing in God our savior and announcing the justice that is